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3 Open Minutes with Jan Haaken

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 05 February 2016
Jan Haaken film maker

Portland State University psychology professor & filmmaker 

Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers, a new feature-length documentary about four Washington State dairies and one Oregon dairy, recently premiered in the Northwest. 

Directed by Jan Haaken, the film highlights the financial, family and social challenges these dairies face in order to continue to dairy farm today.

The film also explores the industry’s trend toward larger dairy herds and the public’s perception of their animal care, herd health and laborers. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley recently interviewed Haaken, a psychologist and Portland State professor, about her new film and what inspired her to make it.

Tell me about how you got into making documentaries.

HAAKEN: I am very interested in community clinical issues. That is, how people struggle with keeping sanity in the world and how people respond to social problems. The medium of film started for me as a way of gathering data during field research.

I would record people for interviews and then transcribe their comments. However, I ended up using the interviews in documentary film so that the findings would be accessible and more engaging visually to the public.

I’ve produced or directed six feature-length films. Three of them have involved war or warfare and were shot in war zones. The idea was to bring out mental health issues as they related to war and how people think through the effects of war, including the effects that linger after the smoke has cleared from the battlefield.

My most recent film was called Mind Zone: Therapists Behind the Front Lines. The army authorized me to embed with a combat stress control unit that was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.

I was interested in the pressure and stresses on these stress control teams as they work to get soldiers back on their feet and back into duty. I finished that in 2014, and it is a pretty unique look at the war through the eyes of therapists.

All of my films actually have been in these kinds of zones of trouble and transition, whether it be in war zones or state hospitals.

Both my research and my films involve work carried out behind the scenes that becomes the focus of public anxiety in some way. Often, you get a very polarized picture of what is going on. For example, soldiers after war tend to be demonized as either a psychopath vet or idealized as a heroic warrior.

How did this background lead you to picking the dairy industry for your next film?

HAAKEN: I realized as a college professor that many of my students were concerned with what happens to animals raised for food. They were very curious about “factory farms” and images distributed online from animal rights groups of horrific torture of animals.

If you set those images against the very romanced images of the dairy industry – a farmer out in the field with a handful of cows – you get this picture of dairy farmers frozen in time. I also became very suspicious of the information my students were getting; it seemed to be very simplistic.

My own family has a background in dairy farming. As an educator, I wanted to take a more thoughtful and complex look at the real farming dilemmas from the perspectives of farmers themselves.Jan Haaken

Tell me about some of the research you did prior to talking to the dairy farmers in the film and the themes portrayed in this film.

HAAKEN: We did a lot of research on four main areas. One was the history of the animal rights movement. We also did reading about the history of farm policy. The economics of dairy was very much of interest to me, and the film includes some of that.

I was interested in how the farmers framed those issues. The third area we researched was the role of technology in dairy farming. This was an area where I actually had to change my thinking over time.

When I first saw the images for robotic milkers, I just thought they were ridiculously absurd. The way they were advertised as more comfortable for the cows seemed really bizarre to me. However, I am convinced that there are some real benefits after seeing how farmers use them. I did not realize that being milked by hand is not necessarily something a milking cow enjoys.

Another area of background research that was closer to the field of psychology was the transmission of the family farm over time to another generation and the family dynamics involved. As dairy operations have become more capital-intensive and involve more land, there is a lot at stake in the transmission of the farm.

So I thought a film like this where families talk about that issue could be a good opening scene. Another area of focus in the film is farm wives. They are often not fully appreciated, and I wanted to honor the contributions of farm wives through this film.

Milk Men film

How would you describe the modern dairy farmer in a sentence to someone else?

HAAKEN: The range of skills you have to have to survive as a dairy producer is impressive. I am sure there are bad dairy farmers, but you really have to have your act together. Some of my students were surprised to see these dairy producers sitting at computers; they didn’t know dairy farmers knew how to use computers.

There is a picture of dairy producers as though they all still live in the 19th century. However, dairy farmers have to be very astute and skilled in terms of modern technology and business practices and handle welfare issues.

They have to know how to take care of the land and navigate regulatory processes for their milk and their land to ensure that their product is safely brought to market. It’s a complicated business. I worry about pressures on these farmers to get bigger to survive and about how many of them will survive into the decades ahead.

There may be reasons to be critical of the dairy industry, like other industries, but it is important to base an opinion on information of what it is like to do that work and the complexity of what is involved.

You said there ‘are reasons’ for the public to be ‘criticalof dairy farmers.’ Why is that?

HAAKEN: It is not often helpful to build higher fences and to be hostile as a response to questions that people have. I know a lot of farmers think groups like PETA and Mercy for Animals are horrible, and I am not sympathetic with those groups, but I also don’t believe in putting them down.

If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you. If you just throw up a fence, someone outside of that fence is going to fill in the gaps, and it usually is not one you are going to want to read or see.

There is a lot of research that suggests people can accept quite a bit more than you might think if they feel you are trying to do a good job and you are a responsible person. I wanted to show farmers who modeled that in this film.

You have received some pushback in the marketing of the film. Can you explain a little bit more about that pushback?

HAAKEN: There have been people in the marketing or communications departments on the processing side who felt it was emotional, compelling, beautifully done and respectful in its portrayal of farmers.

But they said it may include aspects of the dairy industry that are unfamiliar to people and that it may not be in the interest of the dairy industry for others to see images that are so close to reality. I don’t agree with that, and I am glad the farmers involved didn’t agree with that.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

HAAKEN: I hope audiences recognize the world is more complex than they think it is. Whatever stereotypes you carry in your mind are just that: stereotypes or very simplistic images of what is going on. If you are going to critique the work of people in a field or industry, you should know something about it and the complexity of it.

Every screening we have had, there has been a lively discussion. The film, I think, also provides that kind of space for farmers themselves to reflect on their own practices. There are a lot of differences among farmers, as you know, in terms of how they do things.

I also think the film is a way of bridging the urban-rural divide, which I think is very wide.  PD

Milk Men will be screened at the Just Film Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Feb. 13, 2016, and at the Ethnografilm Festival in Paris, France, on March 31. Go to Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers for more information about the film, to schedule a screening or to watch the movie’s trailer.

PHOTO 1: Jan Haaken, left, directs filming on location at one of the Washington dairy farms featured in her sixth documentary, Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers. Haaken is a psychologist and professor at Portland State University. Her films explore out-of-sight, stressful and little-understood professions that have a public benefit, such as dairy farming. 

PHOTO 2: The film Milk Men. Photos provided by Jan Haaken.

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